It is fair to say that what a person gleans from participating in Mass is somewhat developmental. When a preschooler attends Mass, the need to wiggle and giggle is no less urgent than when on a playground!
But what is learned and experienced on a playground is very different from Mass. Help your preschooler become aware of some elements of the Mass, putting those wiggles into observation and giggles into participation.
This may be the beginning of your child's appreciation and love of the Mass.
On a day when your child is particularly ready to talk and listen, discuss why we go to Mass: It is our most special kind of prayer; there we learn about Jesus, and celebrate that we know him; also we pray with many other people, like Jesus did with his apostles; and Jesus comes to us in a special way.
Soon after this discussion, use some of these suggestions to encourage your child¹s understanding and interest in the Mass.
Explain that there are two main parts:
The Liturgy of the Word:
In this first part, we hear stories. Jesus told many stories, and other people who knew and loved God wrote great stories too. These are in a book called the Bible.
Give your child a good picture Bible, one suited for ages 3-7. Read it together often, and suggest it be brought to church for the child to ³read² during the story part of Mass.
Mention that when we listen to the Gospel story being read, we stand up.
Then the priest will talk about the Gospel, and that is a sitting down time.
Before attending Mass with your child, read the upcoming Gospel yourself and paraphrase it for your child, or see if it is included in the children's Bible and read it together. Challenge your child to listen for the story at Mass. Some gospels are easier for children to connect to than others. Find a detail in the scripture for the child to listen for, such as, "What did Jesus do with the water at the wedding? Who wanted him to do this?" Have a silent signal between you and your child to know when the readings begin, such as a tug on your earlobe. Watching for the signal is fun, and it will be clear to your child that the story part of Mass is starting and it's time to listen closely.
If your child knows the person who is the lector, point that out as one more way to heighten the child¹s awareness.
On the way home, talk again about the Gospel.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist:
Your child may not be ready for the profound happenings at this point in the Mass, or understand the concept of sacrifice, as the word is used in conjunction with Mass. Before going to Mass, decide what your child can understand in terms of the Eucharist and talk about it. Here are some possibilities:
Jesus wants us to always think of him, so he asks us to do at Mass what he did: Share bread and wine.
With special words, the priest asks Jesus to come to be in the bread and wine, so that we can really take Jesus in our hearts and minds in a very close way.
This is the time in Mass when we feel the very closest to Jesus. Watch to see how carefully and lovingly the priest holds up the bread and then the wine; when that happens, talk to Jesus silently. He¹ll hear you. Tell him you want to be his friend and you want Jesus to always be close to you, or tell him whatever you need to say, for Jesus will listen.
There are many obvious "events" that can be easily spotted, and pointing them out will heighten the child¹s awareness. Perhaps the child will even begin to look forward to different parts, which means he is beginning to be a participant.
Children enjoy putting money into the collection basket. Give your child some coins just before the collection begins.
Explain that when we have Thanksgiving or other celebrations, we often have a meal together, and people bring food to share. At Mass, watch for the people who are bringing up the bread and wine that will be a very special Thanksgiving meal (but there will be no turkey or pumpkin pie!) Consider volunteering to bring up the gifts as a family.
Point out when the altar is prepared for the special meal.
If possible, teach your child the "Our Father" at home. At Mass, encourage your child to participate in praying it aloud.
Include your child in the sign of peace. Most adults are delighted to greet children this way. Saying the Our Father and greeting others with peace helps the child be a full participant.
The time to receive the Eucharist is probably the easiest time for wiggly preschoolers— they get to move, and there is a lot to see and hear!
Some additional suggestions:
If you can sing a refrain often used at your parish, sing it at home and encourage your child to sing along.
Once the child is aware of the main parts of the Mass, point out additional parts, such as that we say we are sorry. Talk about forgiveness and thinking about our behavior, pointing out that everyone can do this, no matter what their age — even grown-ups!
The "Gloria" is a way for us to tell God and feel in our hearts that we know God is wonderful. Sometimes we say this and sometimes we sing it. It is a happy prayer!
If you use the word "Eucharist," tell the child that this word means "thanksgiving." If your child asks to receive the Eucharist, explain that Jesus is looking forward to this too. However, it is so very special that it takes time to be ready. Most children are a few years older than your child when they first receive the Eucharist. They first have time of learning, thinking and praying. And, the day your child receives his or her First Eucharist will be a day to celebrate!
To help your preschooler understand the differences between the two main parts of the Mass, read these Scripture passages, paraphrased for children:
For the Liturgy of the Word:
Explain what a scroll is, and that it is the kind of book they used in Jesus' time:
(Based on Lk 4:16-17, 20)*
Jesus went to the synagogue, which is like a church building. He was given the honor of reading from the Holy Scriptures. Jesus stood up and was handed the scroll. Jesus unrolled it to the place he wanted. He read the Scripture respectfully. Carefully rolling up the scroll, Jesus handed it back to the helper and said down.
For the Liturgy of the Eucharist:
(Based on Lk 22:19-20)*
Jesus was with his friends. While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, and broke it. Giving it to his friends, Jesus said, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, "This cup... is the new covenant in my blood." These paraphrased scriptures can be found in OSV's early childhood program, Allelu!